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Prime Minister Stephen Harper walks into the House of Commons before the federal budget is tabled on March 29, 2012. (Dave Chan/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper walks into the House of Commons before the federal budget is tabled on March 29, 2012. (Dave Chan/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

In depth

Watchdogs of Parliament forge closer ties Add to ...

They provide the fuel to some of the most explosive political stories in Ottawa. And now, in the face of a growing grumble from federal mandarins, they’re ganging up.

The eight agents of Parliament – independent watchdogs that include the Auditor-General and the Chief Electoral Officer – are working more closely together than ever.

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In a trend that started a couple of years ago, most of the agents now meet about every other month over meals, sometimes at Ottawa’s Rideau Club, to discuss mutual issues.

Interviews and government documents obtained by The Globe and Mail under access to information legislation show a fascinating political dynamic playing out in the power triangle of the agents, the government and Parliament.

The decision to work more closely together was partly in response to concerns from federal officials that the agents have become too powerful and demanding. A research paper found some senior officials believe the agents have created a “risk-averse” public service that sacrifices creativity. The paper suggested the agents be more co-ordinated in the demands they place on departments.

In interviews with the researchers, mandarins complained of a “gotcha” approach in the agents’ reports that is “often very confrontational.”

“Agents are seen by some to be weakening and even delegitimizing the parliamentary system, notably with respect to the role of committees and individual parliamentarians in the oversight of the government,” states a summary.

The most visible form of co-operation between the agents will start next year when at least three will move into a single office tower in Gatineau, likely with a common reception area. As a group, they are looking at even deeper integration in areas like hiring and training. Although not forced to cut costs, the agents have been asked to follow the spirit of government-wide restraint and are promising a combined $16.4-million in annual savings.

The push for a rethink of the way agents operate comes as some of them play central roles in the main political stories of the day. Auditor-General Michael Ferguson elevated the F-35 file to its current prominence. Elections Canada investigators are hunting down the details on robo-calls. Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart added her concerns to last year’s furor over government legislation that would give police access to basic personal information about Internet users without a warrant.

The steady flow of reports from these independent agents provides welcome fodder for opposition parties. But many senior public servants are unimpressed.

Treasury Board, which is responsible for controlling government spending, approved several research papers last year by the Institute on Governance, an independent think tank, to examine the way seven of the offices – Elections Canada wasn’t included – do their work and to raise issues for discussion.

The eight agents currently cost Ottawa more than $300-million a year and collectively employ about 2,000 full-time staff.

The researchers got an earful in background interviews with deputy ministers and assistant deputy ministers.

The report says senior officials believe the agents “feel the need to justify their existence” by finding problems.

“While they agree it is important to expose wrongdoing, it was noted that this can go overboard and big public issues can be made out of small, relatively normal problems,” the summary report states.

A briefing note to Michelle d’Auray, the secretary of the Treasury Board, said that while the researchers had completed four studies to date, the agents did not participate.

There was a reason for that, said Graham Fraser, the commissioner of official languages, one of the eight agents.

“We felt it wasn’t really appropriate for us to be answering questions from a group that had been commissioned by Treasury Board. We’re not accountable to Treasury Board. We’re accountable to Parliament,” he said in an interview.

“It does not entirely surprise me that government departments are saying ‘Gee, this is kind of a pain.’ Nobody really likes being audited and we’re in the auditing business.”

Treasury Board’s interest in the accountability of the agents came after a controversy involving the first Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, Christine Ouimet. A review by the Auditor-General found that Ms. Ouimet – who resigned her post – did very little with the complaints her office received.

In response to government pressure for greater accountability, the agents submitted a joint letter in 2011 to then-Speaker Peter Milliken and five committee chairs calling for a permanent advisory council that could be the main point of interaction between Parliament and the agents.

Mr. Fraser said the agents are still waiting for a formal response.

NDP MP Pat Martin, who chairs the government operations committee, expressed concern at how some senior officials view the work of the agents. He said the number of agents should be expanded by making the Parliamentary Budget Officer a fully independent agent.

“Let’s face it: Parliament has become less and less effective by design,” he said. “We’ve been neutralized to such a large extent in recent years that, if it wasn’t for officers of Parliament, the taxpayer would have no friends at all.”

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